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Stilts and a Colonial Afternoon Tea . . .

My tech savvy 9-year- old twin grandsons have observed with interest the reprinting of the May books and of course have their own special signed copies. Last week I asked them if they would like me to read them a chapter from “A Comet in the Sky”. Once the family were ensconced in our squashy old sofa and chairs I read to them from Chapter 8 – the story about the stilts. The boys snuggled in eyes growing round and the adults sat quietly, as the story unfolded of the trouble that ensued when May took the stilts to school.

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Leading the school into Anderson’s bush at lunchtime seemed a great adventure but ultimately led to harsh punishment from the teacher, Mr Funke. My grandsons were fully engaged in the small drama that unfolded in this chapter, and afterwards stories came out about school days from the adults – the free use of corporal punishment was fully discussed, giving everyone much to reflect on. The simple stilt story held its audience that night and led to more story telling from the people in the room. Two small boys were part of a close family circle, listened hard, asked questions, laughed a lot, and loved hearing more stories from the ‘old’ people in their family. The adults had a good time too, reminiscing.

This week the reprint of ‘A Comet in the Sky’ comes out. 100 special copies have been signed by the author and there are boxes of books choking up my hallway waiting to be loaded into the wagon to go down to Taranaki on Wednesday. I visited my Mum this weekend for the small signing spree and looking through one of the scrapbooks we found the 1985 invite to the book launch of ‘The Comet’. A colonial afternoon tea was held in the Tauranga District Museum. Mum vividly remembers… “I had made a large fruit cake in my big tin, the one I have now given to Nia. On the morning of the launch I got up early and made eight batches of 2-cup mixture scones. I had blackberry jam I had made in the summer and I whipped up some cream. I hired some Girl Guides and they buttered, jammed and creamed the scones, set out the food and waitressed. It was a wonderful launch and the perfect venue. The guests could roam around the museum…”

We dug out the picture of the old Paemako school, a photograph I took about 12 years ago. This picture gives us a feel for the size of the school and the isolation.

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A letter from Laurena McDonald, the Piopio Library Resource teacher, inviting Mum to visit says…  “Our two standard 3 and 4 classes are both reading “Comet in the Sky” at the present time. The two books which centre on our local area help bring to reality books and authors for the children. A number of the families are direct descendants of some of the people mentioned in them. Naturally a great deal of response and interest lies in your books in the school and district, therefore we feel it is an ideal choice if you are able to join us”

In April 1986 Mum visited Piopio Primary School to be the guest speaker for their Book Week. “The whole school came out – all of the children…about two hundred of them. They gave me a powhiri and all those children knew what to do – no one needed to tell them. I had tears in my eyes”.

School visits featured largely for many years for Mum who was part of the ‘Writers in Schools’ programme. The teachers and librarians championed the books, parents and grandparents became involved as their children brought the books home, and as the books became part of library collections. Parents turned out for the visits as they did this year when we visited Omata School. So many parents have contacted us and commented on the website and facebook pages, remembering their ‘favourite books’. They now want their children and grandchildren to experience the books as they did, and ensure the stories continue to be told.

I watched my grandsons absorbed in the stilt story that night and this adventure from over a century ago was relevant, exciting, and took them to a place far away from 2017. It was also an opportunity for them to talk with their own grandparents about what life was like ‘back in those days’ and also to understand how courageous and adventurous their ancestors were.

Enjoy reading the third book in the series, and I encourage you to use this as an opportunity to have those great conversations with each other about what life was like a century ago.

Mary Johnston, November 2017

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